An Iliad, La Jolla, Calif.

Written by:
Lynne Friedmann
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‘An Iliad’

Written by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson
Directed by Lisa Peterson
La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla, Calif.

Aug. 11-Sept. 9, 2012

The Trojan War has never been more enthralling or thought provoking than in this La Jolla Playhouse adaptation of Homer’s epic, which manages to retain all the vitality of the classic while breaking new theatrical ground.

Unchanged over three millennia is an audience’s willingness to turn itself over to a Poet (played by Broadway veteran Henry Woronicz). But having told of the glory and horrors of war over and over and over again, he is weary in appearance, spirit, and cognition. Dressed in street-person garb with military boots and a pendant around his neck suggesting dog tags (courtesy of costume designer Marina Draghici), Woronicz at first wrestles with himself as to whether to begin the tale or not. Once started, decrepitness shows as names escape him or trip him up altogether. The story is “sung” alternatively in spell-binding oratory that harks back to Woronicz’s Shakespearean training, smatterings of ancient Greek, and slang-laden asides such as comparing the rage that makes Achilles a killing machine to the road rage we all too often experience ourselves.

A muse is summoned in the guise of a Musician (virtuoso double-bassist Brian Ellingsen) who coaxes sounds from his instrument (score by composer Mark Bennett) that range from leviathan dirges (you feel the marrow vibrate in your bones) and silky orchestration that accentuate Woronicz’s commentary to percussive beats and nerve-fraying staccato chords that punctuate the height of battle.

Basing their adaptation on Robert Fagles’ translation of “The Iliad,” writers Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson have done an impressive job making “An Iliad” a one-act tour de force of 100-minute duration that doesn’t feel like a stripped-down version of Homer’s 24-book epic. It also incorporates contemporary references to regional conflicts and violence that all too clearly mark modern society. Peterson directs this co-production for La Jolla Playhouse and Berkeley Rep.

Scenic designer Rachel Hauck’s set incorporates the disarray and detritus of a backstage to reinforce the script’s subtext about war as theater. Lighting designer Scott Zielinski at times sends penetrating beams through to the back of one’s head, garishly illuminates the Poet’s face into a pained, frozen Greek mask, and magically turns Woronicz’s dispersed shadow against the back wall into menacing, sword-wielding adversaries for fight scenes.

“An Iliad” builds to a moment when, with a cadence just a beat slower than a tobacco auctioneer, Woronicz recites the names of all the wars from Troy through now, ending with Aleppo. It’s all more sobering with the realization that this ongoing Syrian conflict erupted after La Jolla Playhouse rehearsals of “An Iliad” began.

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